A Philosophy Primer

After a survey of Western philosophy, my hypothesis was confirmed: philosophy can only provide us clarity of our, human-made, knowledge within the confines of our language.  It does not give us absolute, objective truths unless we want it to.  

This started as something small but morphed into a survey on Western philosophy.  It is not a critique but may be helpful when I present an empirical philosophy that dismisses most of Western philosophy.  In a nutshell, it says that objective truth doesn’t exist.  

This essentially was my opportunity to learn about philosophy all over again, in breadth but not in-depth.  This is not original to me and is more or less me testing myself after I read, where some portions were copied verbatim from the source I provided below.   

Western Philosophy:  The Traditional Approach

The word philosophy, from Greek, literally means “the love of wisdom”.  I understand why scientists may view philosophy with contempt because they associate it with deductive logic and the weapon of the religious right.  But it is a useful way of organizing knowledge and can assist science in understanding its assumptions, theoretical foundations and enlighten us on its moral implications.  This is meant to be a concise reference for anyone that is interested in the breadth of philosophy that is not in-depth.

Metaphysics: The Study of Existence and Reality

When concerned with the nature of existence, reality, and being, then we are talking about metaphysics.  Metaphysics is similar to ontology.  Whereas metaphysics is on the nature of reality and what sorts of things are real, ontology concerns itself with what exists and what does it mean to exist.  We may hear the word ontology used in science—as an entity’s “ontological status”—which deals with figuring out “how entities are grouped into basic categories and which of these entities exist on the most fundamental level.”

The word objective means that we have agreed-upon standards that allow us to assess the truth of something.  If something is subjective, then we lack such criteria.  For example, if we say that dogs are the best kind of pets, then it is subjective because the word “best” is not defined.  If by “best” we mean any kind of pet that is loyal and affectionate, then we would be closer to objectivity.  Otherwise, we would never settle the issue or argument on what the best pet is.  Truth then depends on something.

Objectivism (i) is the idea that there is a reality, or realm of objects and facts, which exists wholly independent of the mind [1].  And objective (i) truths or facts remain true always and everywhere independent of the mind [1].  Math is an example of objective truths as 1 + 1 is always and everywhere 2.  We will also see it phrased as objective reality which means a reality that exists independent of us perceiving it.  Things can be objectively true within a framework but not be universally true, which is objective relativism.

Subjectivism is the antithesis of objectivism.  It claims that our perception is our reality and that it is dependent entirely on how we experience it.  It is similar to metaphysical relativism and idealism and since it is about how we experience our world, then it is a form of empiricism.  Idealism says that the only things that exist are ideas and thoughts, and we can’t be certain that external reality exists.  This contrasts with realism which is a form of objectivism that emphasizes a reality that is independent of our perception. 

Relativism is a philosophical doctrine that at the very least says that all things are dependent upon a point of view or framework and that no one point of view or framework should take precedence over another.  When we use the word relative, we don’t use it in the strict sense, such as the definition suggests, and is thus called soft relativism.  Subjective relativism, a form of cognitivism, is when things can be objectively true relative to you but not universally true which can be put as “what is true for you is not for me.”

Determinism is the philosophical idea that given an initial state of the universe that only one path of events is physically possible, which means every state is predetermined by a prior cause.  Indeterminism is the idea that things are not caused or not caused deterministically.  When science models phenomena, especially in quantum physics, events are determined in probabilistic terms.

Cause and effect are best understood as a difference-maker; that is, we need to know which variables will make a difference to other variables while holding something constant.  Hume points out that we never really observe the cause and effect relations just the fact that some events are reliably followed by others; so we observe the co-occurrence of events.

“Causal relations need not be regarded as mere explanatory relations, let alone as mere practical heuristics.  For all we know, causal relations may well exist out there in the world. They may well be what philosophers call “ontic” and not just “epistemic”: features of the world, not just features of our cognition.”  [2]

Causal determinism is a principle in physics that says all states (objects or events) have prior causes that are part of an “unbroken chain-of-events.”  The physical level is the classical physics kind of cause and effect and is the level at which causal or physical explanations can be used.  The intentional level is where we can reason about mental states being the cause of our actions, but when we reason here properties are in relation to other properties by semantics and logic not by physical causes.

Epistemology: The Study of How and What We Know

Epistemology can be summed up as how and what we know.  It deals “with the nature (what is knowledge) and scope (what can we know) and asks how we justify our beliefs.  Knowledge is explicitly defined as “the awareness and understanding of particular aspects of our reality.”  It concerns itself with propositions which are statements of knowledge or truth-value statements.  Truth-value propositions have the capacity of either being true or false because they are unambiguous, declarative statements.

So knowledge must meet be understandable and is acquired when reason is applied to reality.  What makes knowledge knowledge—”justified true belief“—is that it meets the conditions of being necessary and sufficient.  In other words, the statements must be truebelievable, and justified.  The justification part is a point of disagreement because what justifies something as being true can either be evidential (based on evidence), reliable (a reliable means of attainment), or infallible (“belief necessitates its truth”).

In its extreme form, rationalism is the idea that reasoning alone is the best way to obtain knowledge.  As Rene Descartes has said, “I think therefore I am.”  Empiricism comes from the Greek word “experience” and says reliable knowledge comes from our senses—that is, how we perceive and experience our world.  Empirical refers to the method of empiricism that relies on observation and experiments, which is known as the scientific method.  In the real world, reasoning can be either a posterior and a priori.

Logic: A Process for Getting Good Reasoning

Logic is what helps us to separate good reasoning from bad reasoning (fallacious).  We can categorize logic as formal, informal, mathematical, or symbolic.  Formal logic has explicit rules that make it work, which is most often applied to statements or claims within a language.  The statements can be true or false and are known as premises when presented as an argument.  Premises can be axioms—self-evident truths—or theorems—conclusions that come from strict rules of inference as well as its axioms.

We can structure our arguments as deductive or inductive to help find the validity or probability of truth.  The rules of the system—e..g, deductive logic—tell us how the conclusion follows from its premises.  In any logical system, logic needs consistency (no contradicting theorems), soundness (no false conclusion from true premises), and completeness (no true statements left to be proved).  Traditional formal logic boils down to the study of inferences and focuses on deductive and inductive means to do so.

Formal logic also includes formalism, which says that formal statements have no intrinsic meaning but serve specific purposes.  Symbolic logic is “the study of symbolic abstractions that capture the formal features of logical inference (ii)”.   It attempts to solve “intractable” problems that traditional formal logic (e.g., Aristoliean) could not solve.  For example, the statements used in traditional logic cannot include more than one determiner, such as “all” or “many”, because they are unsolvable or “intractable”.

First-order logic, or predicate logic, allows for statements to introduce quantifiable variables.  Since this is done with our language, then these variables could include the determiners “all” or “many”.  Propositional logic is known as zeroth-order logic and contains no determiners, i.e., variables expressing quantity.  It is thus more fundamental and makes use of words that connect propositions together or logical operators, e.g., “not”, “or”.  In our English grammar, these of course are known as coordinating conjunctions.

Mathematical logic is when formal logic is allowed to influence mathematics and vice versa.  Computer science was developed in the 1940s based on Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorems which addressed the limitations of all of the formal logic systems discussed above.  Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege were the pioneers in applying formal logic to mathematics, known as logicism, by using set theory, recursion theory, and proof theory.  Finally, intuitionism says that math is not a form of objectivism.

According to Intuitionism, the truth of a statement is equivalent to the mathematician being able to intuit the statement, and not necessarily to its provability. It requires the application of intuitionistic logic (or constructivist logic), which preserves justification, rather than truth, for derived propositions. [1]

Intuitionism essentially says that math does not exist independent of the mind.  Math is not analytic—that is, to deny its truth wouldn’t be a contradiction— but instead is a mental activity of humans.  Mathematical truths don’t reveal “deep properties of existence but rather they are the application of internally consistent methods to realize more complex mental constructs”.    

Any mathematical object is considered to be the product of a construction of a mind, so that if it can be constructed then it exists.  Intuitionism is therefore a variety of Mathematical Constructivism in that it asserts that it is necessary to find (or “construct”) a mathematical object to prove that it exists. [1]

Analytic philosophy was an actual movement and a catch-all phrase for anything within logic that excluded logicism, logical positivism, and ordinary language philosophy.  It says the following which is what I have concluded that philosophy can provide us—that is, clarity within the framework of our limited language. 

philosophy should apply logical techniques in order to attain conceptual clarity, and that philosophy should be consistent with the success of modern science. For many Analytic Philosophers, language is the principal (perhaps the only) tool, and philosophy consists in clarifying how language can be used. [1]

Ethics The Study of How We Should Act

  • consequentialism, utilitarianism, egoism, altruism
  • hedonism, humanism, individualism, deontology
  • moral realism, moral absolutism, moral relativism


i) There are nuances within each of these terms worth discussing.  When we speak of absolute and objective, these concepts can be relative to other things just as relativism is.  The difference is that once a relationship with another thing is established, it is the “essence” of that thing that matters.  On the other hand, when terms like relative and subjective are addressed, then it’s the “representations” of the thing that is used by something else.  Relative and subjective are reserved for things that have agency.

ii) Inference comes from “infer” which means “to carry forward”.  It is something we do when we think we know something from something we think we know.  Once presented as a formal argument, then the statement that we inferred becomes a conclusion.


[1] Mastin, L. (2009, January). Existence and Consciousness.


  1. says

    An absolute morality is a morality that does not change with context.

    It’s a bit of a red herring, since EVERYTHING depends on context. In the every morality with which I am familiar, swinging an axe is a moral act IF the axe is made of lightweight plastic and I am using the swings to portray a character in a stage play.

    On the other hand, in a few moralities, it might be immoral to swing an axe IF I’m doing so to cut down a healthy tree.

    And in the vast majority of moralities, swinging the axe is an immoral act IF I’m doing so to kill another human being.

    Absolute moralities attempt to sidestep this by defining their terms sufficiently precisely that ALL acts of X can be confidently labeled moral (or immoral). For instance murder is not the same as killing. If all acts of murder are immoral, then murder is absolutely immoral. But it may not be objectively immoral. Imagine killing baby Hitler. A time traveler may know of baby Hitler’s future crimes, but chopping the baby to death with an axe would still be murder and still be absolutely immoral. But depending on your metaethics, the reasons for categorizing murder as absolutely immoral might not be satisfied by any individual murder. For a Utilitarian, it might be obvious that we must prohibit murder, but this assumes we can’t know in advance what crimes or harms a person murdered today would have committed or inflicted tomorrow. In the case of baby Hitler, our time-traveler actually does know how much harm that baby will eventually cause, and maximizing human happiness is objectively achieved by permitting such a murder.

    So within the given moral framework (Utilitarianism) we find a conflict between absolute Utilitarian morality and objective Utilitarian morality.

    Similar conflicts can be found in other moral systems. Suicide is often said to be absolutely immoral and objectively immoral. Catholic morality, for instance, purports to hold this. But suicide by, say, leaping onto a grenade in a time of war to protect others is often held to be moral by Catholic authorities. But the objective standard (comparison to the supposed nature of their god) does not change merely because others are nearby that might be harmed. Therefore the ban on suicide is not absolute.

    Weirdly, in this situation, the justification for holding such a suicide to be moral also cannot be objective. The Catholic god literally cannot commit suicide, so there can be no favorable comparison to their god’s nature to justify this finding of morality. Whatever yardstick they are using to determine morality, it is obviously subjectively changeable. They could try to say that the distinction is, say that jumping on the grenade is a loving act which then compares favorably to the yardstick of god’s loving nature. But in that case the ban on suicide is no longer absolute: it is conditional on whether the suicide is a loving suicide or a non-loving suicide, a distinction that Catholic authorities do not generally make.

    Of course it is possible to have a morality that is both objective and absolute. An environmentalist morality that requires throwing back lobsters caught in fishing traps if the lobsters are less than 40 cm long is objective and absolute. But few important moral problems can be reduced this way.

    In general the absoluteness of a moral judgement is dependent upon how well the judgement is defined and how clearly the judgment is specified (so that we don’t have unanticipated exceptions crop up later). The objectivity of a moral judgement is dependent on how invariant is the reasoning by which individual instances of the phenomenon are judged. Centimeters do not change with different occurrences of measuring lobsters, but the “lovingness” of a suicide is probably dependent on the viewer. Before we discussed the Catholic church making a moral pronouncement based on whether something was a suicide (i.e. whether it can be determined that the person who died intended their own death), but then swapping yardsticks from intention to cause death to lovingness. But even if lovingness was the unacknowledged yardstick all along, lovingness is unlikely to be able to be judged objectively. For this last, imagine that a soldier who later jumps upon a grenade had been having suicidal ideation because of her experience of the horrors of war and a normal, though self-interested, desire to escape those horrors. If the suicidal ideation occurred 3 seconds before the grenade landed, is jumping on the grenade still a loving act? What if the ideation was ongoing to the point of contemporaneous? What if the last episode of suicidal ideation was 4 seconds ago but that was the first episode ever? What if the last episode of suicidal ideation was days ago, but the person had experienced suicidal ideation for decades and was currently on anti-depressants? How do we judge the “lovingness” of this suicide? And how do we ensure that every observer judges the lovingness in exactly the same way, coming to exactly the same conclusion?

    These are the problems of non-objective moralities, and they are not trivial. It becomes worse when one acknowledges that the person next to you might actually use a different metaethics in their reasoning. It is obviously impossible to get all persons to agree on the morality of an act like possibly-altruistic, possibly-not suicide when not everyone agrees on what yardstick to use or even whether suicide should by default be considered moral or immoral.

    Thus morality as it exists is clearly neither objective nor absolute. The first question is whether someone’s morality is actually right (and thus all others’ moralities are actually wrong). But even then, that person with the “right” morality may or may not be using different yardsticks in similar situations. Perhaps they come to the “right” conclusion every time, but do they do so using the exact right thought process and analytical procedures every time?

    And in what sense is their set of correct moral answers “absolute”? It is only absolute to the limitation of our language’s ability to describe this moral savant’s yardsticks and reasoning such that someone other than the moral savant is able to accurately predict the conclusions of the moral savant. Anything less than 100% accurate predictions indicate that the moral law passed from one person to another is a non-absolute morality.

    I hope this clarifies the basic distinctions between “objective” and “absolute”. There are variants of these, and others might quibble with my explanation in certain details, but I think this gives a good enough picture to be getting on with.

    Whatever you do, don’t ask yourself whether the “yardstick” can be the moral law itself, because then every morality is objective. There are even situations in which the objectivity and absoluteness of a moral pronouncement become entangled and one can legitimately wonder whether they are, in fact, truly separable.

    But again, don’t get into that – particularly since the people you’re likely to be debating generally assume that objectivity and absoluteness are severable.

    • musing says

      More than I ever expected. Much appreciated! It will take some coffee to process, but I am sure that I will have questions.

      That was a big help! I just finished reading it, and I see the complications involved in applying both absolute and objective moralities. It was hard for me to discern the differences still between objective and absolute though. But I think you touched upon it when you said that everything depends on the context. I went further with that and found this from Quora. Let me know if what this person says is correct because it makes sense. At the end, I am trying to take your use of the words objective and absolute within the moral context that it is used to see if it squares away with below, and I am having trouble. Help! Thanks! I suppose none of this is critical to my argument.


      Basically, there is no difference. These terms are equally applicable to relationships.
      Do not think that only “relative” would imply a reference to another choice, and that “absolute” would not be concerned.
      “Absolute” implies just as much a relationship if only to form the concept of the absolute thing.

      ‘Objective’ and ‘absolute’ are addressed to the essence of the thing that comes into relationship.
      ‘Subjective’ and ‘relative’ are addressed to the representations of the thing used by something else.

      The only difference is purely semantic: we use rather “objective” and “subjective” when an individual consciousness participates in the relationship, that “relative” and “absolute” are more general and concern all types of relationship.

      The most interesting in these definitions is that “subjective” and “objective” do not necessarily have the meaning of their usual loan. A person is accused for example of “subjectivity” but in fact she is perfectly objective in relation to the content of her consciousness, which is her personal absolute. Subjectivity is an evaluation of another person in relation, who judges that the statements of the first do not correspond to his own “objectivity”.

      Just as most of the “absolutes” we use to reality are actually ‘relative’ common to a lot of consciousnesses, and not an “absolute” owner of reality, which is not accessible to us.

      Squaring Away

      The absoluteness of a moral judgment is dependent upon how well the judgment is defined and how clearly the judgment is specified (so that we don’t have unanticipated exceptions crop up later). The objectivity of a moral judgment is dependent on how invariant is the reasoning by which individual instances of the phenomenon are judged.

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